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Books: Gold and Grit

3 minute read
Robert Wernick

A LIFE by WRIGHT MORRIS 152 pages. Harper & Row. $5.95.

When we last saw old, ornery Floyd Warner (in Wright Morris’ last novel, Fire Sermon), he had just lost his present in the form of an orphaned and vaguely related child he was taking care of, and his past, in the form of a fire that consumed all the physical mementos of his family. In this book, now 82 and half-blind, he has not much of a future either−less than 48 hours as it turns out. But the book is called A Life, and in a sense it is just that−all that there is to know about Floyd Warner compressed into some 150 pages that go careering over the landscape of the Great Plains the way the old man’s 1927 Maxwell navigates the roads.

His dour, daft family, his rages, his uncomplaining wife (“He felt a drop in her interest when she seemed certain there was nothing much in it for her but pleasure”), his keen, cold eye, his utter isolation−they all unreel as episodes unreel by the roadside, bizarre but not unexpected.

It is all pure Morris: the best (the sidelong wit and the marvelously supple prose, now gold, now grit) along with the worst (the wooden dialogue, the coy hints at profound meanings that never quite come out from behind the prose screens). More than any of his 17 previous novels, the story takes off from the workaday world in search of the ineffable. The familiar trappings of Wright’s baroque realism turn up: the taste of switch grass and cord grass, the loom of grain elevators, the feel of a kitten dropped by wanton boys into a country-school privy. But the subject is myth. Old, unbelieving, literal-minded Floyd Warner takes on immortal longings. Having defied common sense by taking a herd of sheep and a wife to the banks of the Pecos where God intended neither species to live, having defied humanity by his whole mean, solitary life, he finds himself stumbling on to an end that his rheumy eyes can hardly make out, with some of the defiant dignity of a Greek hero.

This is a cold, autumnal book. The question is never deemed worth asking, whether this life was worth living. There is nothing here of the noble Willa Gather nostalgia for a Nebraska full of giants, or the facile Hemingway nostalgia for a Michigan of pliant girls and truly good trout. By the time Floyd is murdered for his watch, he has swollen into a huge and lonely figure. His death can stand for that of the white man’s America, or of the whole human race. He never has had much use for that latter one anyway.”

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